SI Vault
John O'Reilly
October 31, 1960
When Hurricane Donna hit Florida's Keys, it did more damage than most people knew. Now the islanders are winning a gallant race to come back
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October 31, 1960

Mighty Leap From Ruin

When Hurricane Donna hit Florida's Keys, it did more damage than most people knew. Now the islanders are winning a gallant race to come back

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Now and in the weeks immediately to come the banging of hammers will be the dominant sound of the Keys. Already, despite many obstacles, most of the less badly damaged motels are in operation. By the first of the year visitors should find at least 80% of the tourist housing facilities open for business. This is an approximation, for some of the owners don't know themselves whether they can make it. In many instances the rate of rebuilding will depend on insurance adjustments. Most policies specified that the insurance companies were responsible for wind damage but not for that caused by rising waters, and arguments over this point have caused considerable bitterness. Property owners are seeking to prove as much wind damage as possible while insurance adjusters are trying to establish wave damage. How quickly many people can rebuild depends on the outcome of these struggles.

Fishing guides who run offshore charter boats were among the first to resume functioning. Most of these guides are veterans wise in the ways of hurricanes. When it became evident that Donna would hit the Keys, they took their boats to previously determined moorings deep in the mangroves. These primitive trees with their tangled roots form a natural barrier against the highest winds. A few boats were sunk or washed up on distant islands in Florida Bay, but even these have been retrieved. By the time the season gets under way almost 100% of the charter-boat men will be operating.

Docks, of course, were washed away, but these are being rebuilt. Meanwhile, the boats are using substitute facilities. The bonefishing guides lost some of their boats and motors, but these, being smaller, are more easily replaced. The Islamorada Guides Association, which includes 42 members and 30 offshore boats, expects to be in full-scale operation by December 1. The Marathon Guides Association, with 44 members and 30 boats, has the same target date.

Our survey began near Rock Harbor, on Key Largo. There we found Tom Cadenhead, who operates the Mandalay Fishing Camp, repairing a boat engine. He wore an old Marine Corps hat and a wide grin.

"I'm luckier than most," he said. "I had only about $30,000 damage."

He indicated the new concrete dock already built to replace the wooden one that had washed away. Then he led the way into the nearby woods, which were a clutter of hurricane debris. As he walked he pointed out his ruined refrigerators and the remains of the wooden dock. At one point he exclaimed, "There's my wife's desk. We've been looking all over for that." Fishing around in a pile of papers beside the smashed desk, he pulled out a couple of checkbooks.

Back at the dock we boarded a skiff and Cadenhead steered for Hurricane Creek, where many boats had ridden out the storm in the mangroves. He showed us where each boat had been tied up in the thick tangle.

"It was a strange-looking boatyard but it saved our boats," he said. "We're operating now, and by December 1 we'll be back 100%."

At Tavernier, Captain Cliff Carpenter sat on his porch and told how he had saved his boat, the Shor-Clif, by hiding her in the mangroves off Tavernier Creek. "I had her tied all over with 700 feet of three-quarter nylon line," he said. Captain Carpenter lost his dock but is working from another until he gets his rebuilt.

Captain Eugene Lowe was supervising the rebuilding of his dock on the ocean side at Tavernier. His original dock had been carried all the way to Tavernier Creek, a mile away. Captain Lowe, who has been a fishing guide for 32 years, is also the official weather observer for the town. He said the great hurricane of 1935 brought faster winds and higher water but that Donna lasted longer.

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